By USA Guest Columnist and Pro Angler Mark Courts
It doesn’t matter if you are working on the honey-do list or giving speeches, working smarter and not harder is key to completing the task. The same can be said about catching walleye in spring. With air and water temperatures low, an angler’s smarts become the difference between freezing your tail off on long runs or sitting comfortably over a near-by hot spot.
Walleye are in limbo during this time of the year and large numbers of them are concentrated in smaller areas. As water temperatures slowly climb to 36 to 38 degrees, walleye begin their spawning runs from the lower reaches of impoundments toward the tailraces of dams. This is the locale where they find good spawning gravel and rock, aerated water and a good food supply. Most likely there will be a dock nearby, giving anglers easy access to instant walleye action. When temperatures reach 44 to 46 degrees, the walleye will be getting ready for spawning and some may already have started. Either way, this is prime time to catch good numbers of fish.
Whether I am fishing a tournament or spending a relaxing day on the water, if I want to be successful, I will fish smarter, not harder. When it’s cold outside and there are vast areas where walleye can take cover, it’s really the only option.
Fishing smart means using any instrument or technique available that takes the guesswork out of locating and catching big walleye. Electronics are essential and I will not take to the water without them. If you go without electronics you might as well be looking for a needle in a haystack. Not only are electronics key to pinpointing walleye, electronics also allow you to mark the area for the following season.
River systems offer a great chance to capitalize on walleye that hold up in these areas eagerly awaiting the beginning of the spawning season. Targeting areas of pre-spawning activity yield big walleye that are cashing in on easy food sources (forage fish) that also gather near these high-current hideouts.
Rivers like the Illinois, Mississippi or Missouri offer a great number of current areas that feed into large bodies of water. Anglers targeting inlet streams can expect to have plenty of action and plenty of walleye stocked in the fridge. When you begin scouting an area before heading onto the water, look for areas where the current is leading into the main body of water. Keep an eye on the wind because you don’t want to be fighting a strong current that is accompanied by heavy winds. Warmer days—40-degree afternoons—are the most popular days to be on the water and those are the days I suggest going. After all, it beats going out when it is 32 degrees.
When I prepare for a river walleye fishing trip I always pack as many jigs, varying in size and color, as possible. As I pull up on a spot, vertical jigging will make up 90 percent of the technique I will use. The size of jig will greatly depend on what the current is doing. Typically, I start by using a ½-ounce jig and make adjustments from there.
Make sure the jig is running a vertical line to your boat. You may need to run the trolling motor to fight a strong current, but keeping the jig vertical allows you to feel subtle bites and finicky fish are more prone to bite when the presentation is true.
Walleye tend to hang in the middle to lower ends of the water column, and until the water begins to warm they will stay hunkered down. The depth of your jig will be anywhere from 15 to 40 feet. If you find the pocket of fish, anchor down and hold on for an afternoon of fun. Walleye aren’t going to cruise around looking for an easy meal. They are sitting there just as cold as you.
My favorite jig to use for this application is one with a big hook gap and a longer-than-standard hook for the jig size. I use a high-vis color like pink or white because many times during this time of year the water is a bit dingy and walleye have difficulty seeing the bait. Another important feature to the jig is the hook size. Bigger hooks lead to better hook ups and better hook penetration. I thread a 3-inch Gulp! Alive! Minnow onto the hook, exposing the barb and making sure that the bait is straight on the hook.
I prefer high-visibility line for this technique, but anglers who are concerned with line-shy fish can opt for a Berkley Vanish fluorocarbon leader or fish with Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon. Part of fishing smarter also means you use the best line available. My choice line is always flame green, 6-pound test/2-pound diameter Fireline. Many times in March, your hands can get cold and you won’t always feel the bites, but with this line you can see the line jump on a strike. Spooled on to an Abu Garcia Cardinal 701LX spinning reel mounted on a 6-foot, 6-inch, medium-fast Fenwick Elite Tech Walleye Jigging rod, I can jig this small setup all day without much fatigue.
Fishing smarter is by no means a new idea, but putting that practice to work is very difficult at times. As anglers we are faced with a million different lines, bait and durables gear to use. The key is to focus in on what works year in and year out. That is what fishing smarter is all about. Use these basic tips to fish river systems smart, and you’ll enjoy great day catching walleye.